Grey the sky, and growing dimmer,
And the twilight lulls the sea;
Half in vagueness, half in glimmer,
Nature shrouds her mystery.
What have all the hours been spent for?
Why the on and on of things?
Why eternity’s procession
Of the days and evenings?
Hours of sunshine, hours of gleaming,
Wing their unexplaining flight,
With a measured punctuation
Of unconsciousness, at night.
Just at sunset, was translucence,
When the west was all aflame;
So I asked the sea a question,
And an answer nearly came.
Is there nothing but Occurrence?
Though each detail seem an Act,
Is that whole we deem so pregnant
But unemphasizèd Fact?
Or, when dusk is in the hollows
Of the hill-side and the wave,
Are things just so much in earnest
That they cannot but be grave?
Nay, the lesson of the Twilight
Is as simple as ’tis deep;
And the coming on of sleep.
It’s one in a set of four – “Morning,” “Afternoon,” “Twilight,” and “Midnight” – and I think the best of those though they are all good. Louisa Bevington was an anarchist (Kropotkin came to her funeral, as did the Rossettis) and atheist poet, well versed (so to speak) in Darwin’s theory of evolution. For Tennyson, for the Tractarians, for many others, evolution by natural selection was an unspeakably depressing idea, but Bevington could think about it in a way looking forward to Wallace Stevens’s “Waving Adieu, Adieu, Adieu”: “In a world without heaven to follow, the stops / Would be endings, more poignant than partings, profounder, / And that would be saying farewell, repeating farewell, / Just to be there and just to behold.”
A world without heaven to follow is one in which the present moment, if it signifies anything at all, can only signify repetition, can only mean its own meaning as a present moment. The possibility of temporary repetition is all it offers. Stevens’s repetition is like Bevington’s “Occurrence.” Things happen and the world is a series (hence the idea of repetition) of things happening. What we, empirical, limited, biological people do is acquiesce, as the penultimate line repeats.
What I find so hauntingly perfect about this poem is what that acquiescence is to. On a first reading it looks allegorical: the coming on of sleep is a harbinger of death, which is always coming on (as in Ashbery’s tonally similar poem “Fear of Death,” with its allusion to Hamlet's very last words). But I think what makes this poem so good is that it doesn’t make sleep a figure for death. It’s not about how we Darwinians have to to acquiesce to our own mortality. Rather our experience as biological beings is the experience of acquiescing to our own experience as natural beings. There is a sort of unmeditated kindness in nature, as simple as it’s deep: the kindness that means we fall asleep every night, as mammals do.
We acquiesce, without any sort of decision, to the part of our nature that is the everyday part of nature. I think what’s most amazing about this is the way that the moment in reading the poem that you realize that it’s about sleep, not about death, is the moment you repeat the experience that it describes. Sleep is real, death is notional. There’s no decision there but simply the fact that we do fall asleep, no working through to a resolution of some ontological anxiety but just a little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to sleep. We're fundamentally like all other mammals: we acquiesce as they do to living in the natural world -- the world whose existence we contribute to by being natural beings. The poem doesn’t solve the problem it sets up: it is (as Wittgenstein will say (Tractatus 6.251) about the vanishing of the problem.